South Portland, Maine (WOMENSENEWS)--As they look to strengthen their control of the Senate, Democrats are watching an unusual race here expected to pit two women against one another.
Former state Sen. Rochelle "Chellie" Pingree, a Democrat who became prominent in 2000 when she championed a first-in-the-nation law that sets price controls on prescription drugs, is mounting an ambitious challenge to incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins, a consummate moderate since her election in 1996 and endorsed by the bipartisan National Women's Political Caucus. The race is important to the Democratic Party, which has a 50-49 edge in the Senate--with one Independent--and sees an opportunity to gain greater control.
Pingree enjoys the de facto endorsement of her state's party and has no challenger in June's primary election. She made clear this week at a women-targeted fund-raiser that her campaign will focus on the health-care issues that are her specialty and are of special concern to women. With more than 200 women cheering her at a $100-a-plate breakfast Monday, Pingree said that she will try to capitalize on the fact that Collins did not win the majority of the women's vote in 1996.
"We're at a great point in our culture where two women can run against each other--it means we can talk about issues, not gender," Pingree said.
Nonetheless, a race for national office between two women is a rarity. Unlike this year's Maine race, past competitions between two women featured favored Democrats against conservative challengers. In 1986, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, won her seat running against conservative Republican Linda Chavez. More recently, in 1998, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington State, successfully defended her seat against conservative Linda Smith.
Incumbency, Not Gender, Crucial to Collins' Prospects
One significant contrast to these other races is that Collins' moderate record makes her a less obvious target for a challenger, said Gilda Morales, a spokeswoman for Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics. Collins, she said, is likely to benefit from the fact that 92 percent of incumbents win re-election.
"Voters are very tuned in to incumbents' records," Morales said. "Overall, Collins' and Pingree's ideologies are very similar and incumbency is probably is going to favor Collins for many voters. "Unless a candidate has done something really egregious," Morales added, "voters don't usually turn them out. There has to be anger and I haven't heard of anything about Collins that looks that way so far."
Pingree touts her fund-raising prowess as evidence of her threat to Collins and the National Journal's Cook Political Report concurred, characterizing the race as "potentially competitive." Pingree has raised $1.1 million toward a $2 million goal and hopes to set a record for campaign spending in this state of 1.3 million people.
Pingree supports stringent national campaign finance-reform initiatives and was a leader in passing Maine's Clean Election law, which provides public financing to candidates who meet certain requirements.
During Monday's fundraiser, she portrayed herself as an underdog--a role she seems to relish--who will suffer from advertising campaigns financed by the pharmaceutical industry. Her work to pass price controls on prescription drugs in Maine gave the state power to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies in much the same way as insurance companies. The law pegs prices in part to those in Canada, where the national health system negotiates prices 60 to 70 percent lower than those paid in the United States.
Candidates Share Support for Abortion Rights, Campaign-Finance Reform
Collins and Pingree share similar opinions on many issues and differ sharply on others, such as gun control. On campaign finance, Collins has been a strong supporter of the McCain-Feingold reform initiative since her arrival in the Senate and has spurned Republican leadership on related issues several times.
And Collins is well-positioned to again win over Maine voters. After all, they also elected another moderate Republican woman, Olympia Snowe, to the Senate. While Collins champions conservative issues, such as eliminating the estate tax, she has also cast decisive swing votes against banning late-term abortion procedures, bringing her the support of the Republican fund-raising organization The WISH List, which supports women who favor abortion rights. Collins and Snowe also were among the few Republicans who crossed over and voted with Democrats against impeaching President Clinton.
Campaign staff said Collins will focus her campaign message on health care, education and the small-business issues that have been a specialty since she worked in her family's Northern Maine lumber business.
"I think voters will recognize the good work she's done on health care, education and small business," said campaign spokesman Steve Abbott. "We think male and female voters will support her."
Collins is also proud of work on education issues, Abbot said. She has been an advocate for increased federal support for mandated special-education programs, which was the pivotal issue that prompted one of her mentors, U.S. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, to leave the GOP and become an Independent last year, tipping control of the Senate to the Democrats. She also has sponsored a number of bills making college more affordable.
Election Offers Voters 'A Truly Meaningful Choice'
Geographically, Collins' political foundations are rooted in northern Maine and the sprawling congressional 2nd District, even though she never served in the U.S. House of Representatives. The region has been the starting gate for moderate Republicans such as Snowe and former Defense Secretary William Cohen, another Republican who was Collins' boss when she worked on his House and Senate staffs. This year marks Collins' third statewide race.
Pingree's home is in the island community of North Haven, population 350, in Maine's Mid-Coast region. Her political career started there, when she was running a knitting business, as she became involved in school politics and eventually chaired the school board.
Eventually, she was recruited to run for the legislature. She immersed herself in national feminist political circles like EMILY's List, which supports Democratic pro-choice women candidates. And she distinguished herself by recruiting women candidates throughout the state, helping to ensure that Maine remained among the states with the highest proportion of women in the legislature.
"There is great excitement in Washington about a woman with the values and the track record that Chellie Pingree has, who has shown she can work across party lines," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who beat a Republican incumbent in 2000 for her seat. Speaking at Pingree's fund-raiser on Monday, Stabenow added, "The differences between these candidates are not fluff and voters will have a truly meaningful choice."
Marie Tessier is a freelance reporter and editor who writes frequently about national and international affairs.
For more information:
Office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins:
Rochelle "Chellie" Pingree's campaign: